THE prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence will rear its head at this week’s SNP conference despite Nicola Sturgeon’s attempts to focus on the campaign for next May’s Holyrood elections.
The First Minister will be warned to adopt a “cautionary” approach to “indyref2” at a keynote fringe event being staged by the Law Society of Scotland at the Aberdeen gathering. Former party leader Gordon Wilson and nationalist MSP Joan McAlpine are among those debating the issue.
The conference gets under way on Thursday and will be the biggest in the SNP’s history.
Speaking of this week’s conference, Sturgeon said it will kickstart the party’s push for a second successive majority in next May’s Holyrood vote. But it is also the first gathering since the party’s unprecedented triumph in the UK general election in May, which saw it return 56 of Scotland’s 59 MPs.
It has heightened fresh speculation about the prospect of a quickfire second referendum after last September’s defeat, but Wilson will this week urge Sturgeon to adopt a long game.
Wilson said: “I’ve used what influence I have to support Nicola taking a cautionary view of it – so we do not move on indyref2 until we know we’re going to win. I would say that would mean a 55-60 per cent support and consistent over a period of time.”
The former leader has previously called on Sturgeon to appoint a campaign director now and commission research on areas such as currency, which was deemed to be a weakness in the referendum campaign.
“Nicola will need to have a formula of some sort, however vague, in the manifesto. I don’t foresee any difficulty about that unless some of the new members get disappointed.
“But at the moment, they are satisfactorily diverted on to questions of fracking, so they have a chance to rebel on these matters. It’s always necessary at any conference to have an issue which is not critical, one where you do have a disagreement. It keeps the rank and file happy and doesn’t let the leadership off the hook on something that is maybe not crucial – but important.”
He added: “The SNP is very disciplined for one reason – the leadership is delivering. There’s nothing like success, but if the party ran into trouble the leadership would have problems because then people start looking for other solutions. But while the weather is set fair, nobody wants to upset the boat.”
Speculation over a second referendum has intensified as a result of the SNP’s soaring lead in the polls in Scotland. The most recent TNS survey last week saw the Nationalists on 56 per cent in Holyrood constituency voting intentions, 35 points clear of Labour on 21 per cent. Recent polling evidence also suggests that support for independence is now split down the middle north of the Border.
The First Minister said that the SNP is now “firmly established” as a major force in not just Scottish but UK politics, but wants to shift the focus of conference away from the constitution and on to next year’s Holyrood election.
“This week’s party conference, the biggest in the SNP’s history, is the launch pad for next May’s Scottish Parliament election,” she said.
“That is an election we intend to win, and win with an outright majority – something which is supposed to be impossible in a PR system but something we have already done once. To win a majority again will not be easy, and I take absolutely nothing for granted. But we have the people, the policies and the momentum to carry us forward to another election success next May.”
The election of Kezia Dugdale and Jeremy Corbyn, as Scottish and UK Labour leaders, has so far failed to provide any bounce in the polls for Labour.
It leaves the SNP on course for a historic third election victory, making them the first party since devolution to win three successive Holyrood terms.
The First Minister added: “People across Scotland see the SNP as the party which will always stand up for Scotland’s best interests, whether at Westminster or Holyrood.
“I will be very proud to stand on our record next May.”
One of the more prominent of the new influx of members is the former Labour MEP Hugh Kerr, who doesn’t expect widespread agitation over the prospect of another referendum.
“Even though there are occasional polls which show that people are in favour, they’re not quite big enough and strong enough to go at the present time, so I think it’s likely to be a rather longer perspective – 2018, 2020, “ he said.
“I suspect there will be something flexible in the manifesto which will set out the right to have a referendum if the events suggest it. I don’t think that will be an issue at the conference.
“I don’t get the impression at the moment that there’s any big sort of revolt or anything happening.”
Sturgeon has already said that the SNP manifesto for next year’s Holyrood election will set out provisions for a future referendum on independence. But it could be prompted by the UK voting to quit the EU in the forthcoming referendum – if Scots voted to stay in.
Senior SNP figures have also warned that failure to deliver fully on the post-referendum Smith Commission powers for Holyrood could also see a return to the constitutional question, amid claims that the current package effectively gives Westminster a veto over key welfare reforms.